hot wet skies
race me up the stairs
no light in the hallway
never in the hallway
there will be time to check the mail tomorrow
The Mulberry Tree was always the best hiding place, but what was hidden there depended on the year and the strength of the winds. Things were placed there with the utmost care, and sometimes these were pretty things, things that belonged there like gemstones or pages from books, but other times they were ugly things, and you only put them there so you wouldn’t have to look at them anymore. You stowed everything away like the space would never end, like the tree was infinite, which was true, in a way, until it stopped being so.
In ’97 the Mulberry Tree was a place for secret treasures, usually of the geologic sort, that you wanted to hide from your sister. In the hollow on the east side of the tree lay a rock that sparkled like a diamond and some polished stones you found that were so smooth you thought they must be old Indian beads. Your sister would never find them there, and you would get to keep all the magic for yourself. All the powers they held were yours and yours alone, and you would protect them even if it meant climbing too quickly and scraping the inside of your knee. In ’97 with purple berry juice staining your chin you didn’t hear the music yet, only the voices carried over the wind calling you inside for dinner. In ’97 the dark hadn’t set in yet, and there were sunsets eternal and ripe, black berries falling from the sky.
But gold turns gray, as it always does, and five years later the dusk poured in without your noticing. Shadows changed places, but the Mulberry Tree still stood in the corner of the yard, bearing fruit quietly with its limbs outstretched. It waited until dinner was over and you could sneak out for a few minutes and stash your journal filled with impatient musings and notes from friends. In ‘02 it was the perfect hiding place for you and for them, all those restless, happy thoughts about words exchanged with boys and what would happen next with this friend or that. Name after name after name! Everything was on the cusp of happening, and you started to hear the music.
“Turn down the radio!” your mother would say while she pounded on your door.
“It’s not even that loud!” you would say back, knowing full well that it was. Even your ears hurt sometimes, but you needed it so you could ignore your insistent heart. It was a teenage heart, soft and clean and waiting to be knocked around a bit so it could have pretty scars like the ones you saw in the movies. It was a silly heart, but this heart, it was all you knew.
“Take care, take care of it!” your mother would say when she picked you up from school in the afternoon.
“I know!” you would say back, while your sister grinned in the rearview mirror.
They thought restraint was something you would learn and patience was something you would acquire in time, but they were wrong. Oh, they were wrong, and the summer brought outbursts that started with injustice and ended in the Mulberry Tree where you could put your hands on its rough bark and wait for the tears to dry. Bare arms wrapped around bare knees. The mulberries hung all around you and waited for you to lift your head and notice them. Eventually you would, and you would taste one, chewing slowly and being healed bit by bit.
Your scars healed easily because they were surface scars, and they didn’t need much more than a tube of aloe to blend back in with the seamless organ of your skin. Your mother’s scars were different, though. They were buried deep in the tissue and irreparable. As tragic as that sounds, the saddest thing about those scars was that they were invisible. To you, to your father, to the world, and even to your mother when she took the right pills. When you were sixteen, you began to realize this, and the things you hid in the Mulberry Tree got uglier.
It was winter when you saw your father go off to church alone in the car. The snow was mostly still white because you lived in the country, and gnarled branches protruded from every which way as you watched him back out of the driveway—slowly, slowly. Nothing about this was unusual, for your father always went to church alone, the one with the red brick on Route 1, and the winter had looked like this for as long as you can remember. But today your head had a heavy feeling. It was the feeling of disorientation you got whenever you became aware of existing, when you thought too hard about being alive and being human and being here, now. You would start to feel it in the back of your head, just above the base of your neck, and then the dizzying circles would begin, and the words “This is real This is now This is being alive You are alive” started swimming furious laps in your brain. You would have to tear yourself away from those ideas, pull yourself back into the present, and wait for the disgusting tides to recede.
When that was done you found yourself back in the once-removed world you usually inhabited. The beige carpet was still beige, the walls were a forgettable color, and your mother was sitting at the kitchen table not doing much besides staring at the centerpiece. Your sister had been talking to her and not looking at the centerpiece because the centerpiece was just a plastic holder for napkins.
“Mom!” your sister yelled, interrupting herself.
“What?” asked your mother.
“You’re staring into space. Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
But you knew she wasn’t because you could see the storm clouds gathering in her brain. It was this talent you had, allegedly bestowed upon you by the god your father was driving over to see at the church on Route 1. You backed away from the window and put on a sweatshirt and boots so you could go out to the Mulberry Tree to hide what you saw. You grabbed a book, one by Melville that you had to read for school, and opened the back door.
“Won’t you be cold like that?” asked your mother.
“I’ll be fine,” you replied, while your sister crossed her legs on the kitchen chair.
But you were not fine! And the Mulberry Tree held your shivering limbs for four-and-a-half minutes before you got cold and walked around. You read one page of Melville but mostly watched over the snowy backyard and the fences that kept it from spilling out. Nothing moved, and you were satisfied. As your boots crunched the snow on your way back to the house, you decided what you would do next and forever so that the storm clouds in your mother’s head would disappear for good.
And so it happened that at age sixteen while your father was talking to his god on Route 1 and your sister was sharpening her pencils, you began to work on your annihilation. You did it because you knew that creating a storm of your own was the only way your mother would forget hers. It was genius! And it started with cigarettes after school.
After that you quit some extracurriculars and learned how to dye your hair ice blue with blonde underneath. It didn’t take long for you to figure out who had the best drugs and where to go to take them. Warehouses at the edge of the suburbs looked dead to most people, but to you they pulsated life in the form of music and warm bodies and colors you’d never seen before. Sure, there was sadness here, but at least everyone knew it and was trying to transform it. Sure, there was yearning here, but at least everyone acknowledged it and made it loud. The worst was the quiet yearning and the ignored sadness that most people have. The stifling of those things—that’s how people die, you were certain. That’s how people die while still being technically alive.
But the warehouse nights were for being alive. You participated in it all, threw yourself into the mix without a second thought, but knew you were not like the others because you were doing it for noble reasons, and they were all selfish. They danced and touched and took pills because they were weak and they didn’t give a damn about anyone else. Not you, though. You did it for your mother because she had to be saved! You would use your darkness to make her forget her own because she was your mother and she raised you and held you when you were sick or screaming. This mission meant that you had to stay out late almost every night. You danced with boys and took pictures with girls, all of you covered in glitter and laughing about things that were forgotten by dawn.
Your school called often, asking where you were when you failed to show for days at a time, but even when you were there you weren’t there. You squeaked out answers to your teachers’ questions from underneath the heavy sweaters you wore to hide the way your collarbone stuck out now. Your eyes were rimmed in red, and you drank coffee before any of your classmates started to like it, cupping your hands around its warmth and taking pictures of it to post online for thousands of people to see and like. You didn’t know what they thought of you, but you didn’t care because this was all for a good cause.
“Where have you been?” your mother would shout when you walked in the house just before the sun came up.
“With my friends!” you would answer as you kicked off the shoes that made you almost as tall as the girls on the runways in Japan. She yelled for a while but you saw no storm clouds anywhere near her and nothing else that would take her away. It was working. Your father said nothing but kept going to see the god on Route 1, and your sister watched from the stairway.
Once she asked you, “Why are you doing this to them?” Them, meaning your parents. You looked at her and shook your head because she would never understand what you were fighting for. She couldn’t see the storm clouds that tormented your mother. Before walking away she told you that you looked like a wreck, but you were fine with that because you could be left alone to make tea in the kitchen in your bare feet, just how you liked it.
Inevitably you ran away because that’s just what people do. It was only for a day and it was only because you lost yourself a little more than usual, and there was a boy with no name who looked like the son of the god on Route 1. A policeman came across the two of you sitting on a bench outside an all-night diner and asked why you weren’t in school. You had no answer, but it didn’t matter because the tights you were wearing said enough. The policeman took you with him but left the boy with no name because he was over eighteen. Your mother drove out to get you, and on the way home you wanted there to be silence because it would be so forceful, but you cried instead.
Finally she pulled the car over on a side street and got out. The sun was strong in the mid-morning sky and came down unevenly through the trees that flanked the road. You waited for her to get back in the car, but she didn’t, and the plastic dashboard grew hot from the light. You looked out the window and saw her standing on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips, staring upward. You got out, too, and found that she was looking at a mulberry tree. Purple berries, almost black, covered the branches with such determination that you thought it couldn’t have been accidental. More were smashed and dried on the sidewalk beneath your feet, and you looked at them while you leaned your head against your mother’s shoulder, the cotton of her t-shirt soft on your skin.
“Everything is going to be ok,” you told her.
“I know,” she said, and you held each other while the birds came and went, feasting on fruit from the Mulberry Tree.
Part 15: To Swim
The last day I ever saw you was the day my Solzhenitsyn came in the mail.
It is the most horrifically ugly book I’ve ever seen: giant and crassly red with typeface that gives away its 1968 reprint year. The jacket is creased and torn and the sallow-faced author himself frowns at me from the safety of his four-by-six bio. He doesn’t look like a decorated war hero in this picture. He doesn’t look like a revolutionary. He doesn’t even look like an author, which is saying a decent lot because what does an author look like anyway? He just looks like the man I see sometimes on the number twelve bus who’s always drinking vodka out of a plastic bottle at 8:00 am.
I set the book on my table and look at it like it’s a newborn with webbed toes. I hate it. I want to destroy it. I don’t even care to open it to see if my old professor was right when she said I would find words so beautifully and deeply written that I would feel my soul jump in my chest when I read them. Instead I leave it sitting on the table like an open wound and go across the street to the café for breakfast. The snow is still falling thickly and steadily and my toes are getting wet through my suede boots but I don’t care because Graham and I have decided to leave tomorrow, Sunday, for California. I shake the snow off my scarf and say hello to the owner before sitting down and ordering a coffee to start. California. Sunday. Tomorrow.
I am the only person in the café this morning and there’s some animal program on the silent television above my head so I’m in a pretty good mood thus far despite the cold still seeping in through the windows. If I knew at this moment that it would be the high point of my day, what would I have done? Would I have thrown myself in front of the traffic on 18th Street and died a frigid death in the gray slush? Would I have crawled back to my apartment and slept until summertime? Or would I have simply bitten into my sourdough egg sandwich and washed it down with black coffee?
Impossible to tell.
I’m chewing heartily when my phone beeps and I expect it to be Graham making arrangements for tomorrow or maybe Angelica telling me again about her birthday party tonight but it’s not. It’s you. You’re on your way back from some god forsaken Midwestern city and are asking what I’m doing later because it would be nice to see me. Oh, cords of dynamite unfurling.
I have every intention of tying them back up and ignoring them but then I get a message from Graham: he has bronchitis. He will be on antibiotics for days and will not be able to leave with me tomorrow, Sunday, for California. He is sorry, and I know he is. He says we’ll go next week, and I believe we will. But my heart, it cannot take this kind of disappointment. It cannot wait. I cannot wait. Maybe the coffee is just hitting my brain but I cannot sit still, cannot sit in this café or this neighborhood or this town for one second longer.
Outside is murky from car exhaust and wet snow, and the dove gray sky is heavy and pressing on my back. But I am outside. And moving. I don’t know where most of the day goes after that but somehow I am at work, my last shift I thought but now who knows and I have new manager named Jake or Jerry or something and he’s from one of the Carolinas and I hate him for no reason. But I can come up with reasons enough, and so I do and I tell them all to my coworker who agrees with me probably because most people don’t understand what other people are like, and they’ll believe anything you tell them. Really, it’s frighteningly easy to create or destroy someone’s character if you want to.
And after my shift when I have sufficiently severed any hopes of an amicable work relationship with Jake Jerry I walk to the train to go to Angelica’s party at a bar on the north side. I thought it was going to be the last time I would see her and now that it won’t be it feels less significant and I feel less like remembering it. I don’t want to go, but I don’t want to not go because then what? There is no California tomorrow, Sunday.
There is tomorrow, actually, and there is Sunday, because those happen whether we plan for them or not. They arrive whether we order them or not, sort of like that poor Solzhenitsyn bleeding on my table. But what if there weren’t tomorrow or Sunday? I have this thought somewhere between the whiskey shots I bought for Angelica and the sips of bourbon from a friend’s flask. And by the time the music in the back room has changed decades and the floor by the bar feels sticky and the girls in flowered dresses all have partners, I am setting my latest drink on a table and rushing outside to meet you.
Your car is idling by the curb or what I think is the curb because I can’t see it through all the dirty snow and slush. Your headlights are on and I’m frantically putting my arms in the sleeves of my coat because it’s fucking cold out here I think but I’m not sure. I slide into the passenger seat and you barely look at me and I don’t look at you because I’m too busy saying something about how I forgot my gloves at the bar. But you don’t care and I don’t really either and now we’re gliding through the wet side streets heading for Lake Shore Drive. And that’s when it occurs to me.
-How I might be able to stop Sunday!
-What are you talking about? Tomorrow is—
-I’ll stop it. Sorry, we’ll stop it. Together. What do you say? I think it would be beautiful. What do you say?
You don’t seem to have any clue what I mean so I start to tell you but then change course and tell you instead how different we are and how you never ever know what I mean. You will never understand if you lived a thousand times longer than a thousand generations and…
But it’s no use because the words aren’t getting through to you, probably because I’m not stringing them together right, probably because of the whiskey swirling in my brain. But just that second as I look at the black lake all the alcohol seems to evaporate and my head is clear. So clear and crisp and I swear the snow has even stopped falling for a minute and the radio has stopped playing and the other cars have disappeared from the road. I know what I need to do.
I grab the steering wheel and turn it sharply to the left, towards the lake. There’s a ledge at this point in the drive and if we go over it we’ll fall twenty yards before crashing into the waves. I imagine the icy water peeling off the layers of dust and sweat on my skin. I imagine it numbing my nerves and slowing my heart until everything around me and in me is calm. Unmoving and calm, and I can drift until the end of time, until the cold water turns to sun on my face, until the sound of the waves turns into the sound of my mother’s voice calling me to the kitchen for breakfast and I am five years old.
But the only voice calling is yours and you’re screaming my name and a hundred other things at a pitch I’ve never heard before. Your whole body is somehow in between my arm and the steering wheel, and as you continue to yell I notice that the snow has started to fall again. Or maybe it never stopped. I’m enraptured with the scene out the window: this endless stream of tiny white snowflakes, so silent, against the dark canvas of night. And city lights to the west. And this bridge back to our neighborhood.
You pull up to my apartment and wait for me to get all my things out of the car and then drive off. It is just then when I’m inside my door and I see Solzhenitsyn staring at me from my table in the dark that the monstrous, cavernous hole opens its jaws and sets to work ripping apart my chest. An hour or so of this until I’ve worn myself out. I make some tea and look at the clock. Eleven minutes to sunrise.